On Thursday night, the old liberal sitcom Murphy Brown was revived; on Friday, the old conservative sitcom Last Man Standing is raised from the dead. The canceled ABC show has been picked up by Fox and plopped down in its old time period. Both shows exploit the election of Donald Trump to the presidency for laughs; both are nearly unendurable in the context of the current television landscape, which is as obsessed with Trump as Trump is obsessed with TV.
You’ll recall that Tim Allen plays Mike Baxter, marketing director for a store similar to a Bass Pro Shop — lots of sporting goods, just the sort of atmosphere for a man’s man like Mike. He has a wife (played by the always good and long-suffering Nancy Travis), whose role is so thinly written I had to look up the character’s name. (It’s Vanessa.) Mike has three grown children, and, like Archie Bunker, he drives his liberal son-in-law crazy.
But Mike Baxter is no Archie Bunker (in the sense of being a vivid character), and Tim Allen is no Carroll O’Connor (in the sense of being a first-class actor), and Last Man is a pretty standard-issue family sitcom. The Friday premiere features an opening barrage of winking jokes about how quality shows get canceled and moved to other networks. This is followed by Mike doing a lot of gloating about the results of the last presidential election. (Trump is never mentioned by name, but it’s not as though Last Man takes place in an alternate universe.) The show then moves on to a banal plot about a briefly missing grandchild, a fleetingly upsetting situation engineered to bring the squabbling Baxter family together. The idea is that, whether you’re conservative or liberal, we all love our families. It’s all extremely boring.
Last Man was canceled by ABC in 2016 after six seasons — low ratings and the need for change were the reasons the network gave for the cancellation. Because the Mike character spouted jokey politically incorrect sentiments, and because Allen is sympathetic to conservative views, Fox News seized on the cancellation as an instance of censorship, hatred of the right, blah-blah-blah.
Fox — the entertainment channel, not the news channel — saw an opportunity to cash in on the then-current success of the newly right-wing Roseanne Barr and picked up the show. It’s unlikely that Allen is going to self-immolate with awful tweets the way Roseanne did, so in that sense, reviving Last Man was a smart business move on Fox’s part. But the show remains very thin gruel when it comes to nourishing laughter, and it’s considerably worse when it gets preachy, when Mike turns to the audience and says things like, “Not communicating seems to be the weapon of choice now. We unfriend, unlike, and unfollow instead of trying to understand each other.”
If Tim Allen hopes that when he’s speaking his lines, he’s now being heard by Trump, that message of love ’n’ understanding will probably fall on deaf ears.
Last Man Standing airs Fridays at 8 p.m. on Fox.
Watch Hillary Clinton’s hilarious on Murphy Brown:
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